by Bill Teitelbaum
Except that he’d been arrested everything would have been fine, Walter Roman said.
He’d been home for several hours by then, but now that supper was over and the boys were next door at the Bensons watching a ballgame, he asked Dorothy to sit down with him at the kitchen table.
“Look, let’s try not to kill the messenger, okay?”
Plus, it was a lame bust to begin with, Walter said. The hooker was a cop. With appropriate counsel a case for entrapment would have been child’s play. The charge would have been vacated prior to arraignment.
Still, he had been busted, and the police had impounded the car.
“But you said it was being fixed,” Dorothy said.
Dorothy was trying to focus her attention. But how could she not have known about this?
“The car, too?” she asked.
“But she wasn’t a hooker, she was a cop,” Walter explained.
“But what did she say? Was she pretty?”
“Dorothy, she was a cop. What difference does it make?”
“But why didn’t you tell me yesterday? Why did you wait until now to tell me?”
That’s what made it so confusing, Dorothy realized. He had made love so gently to her last night. They had been so happy. Afterwards they talked about remodeling the kitchen.
She looked about now at the scarred cabinets and crowded countertops, the electric stove she had never really gotten used to. All that would have to wait now, Dorothy thought.
But it was all in the way you looked at it, Walter said. She knew perfectly well that his family had been uncommunicative. That’s why it was so hard for him to talk about things. Until the arrest in fact he had taken some pride in this. He didn’t like to bother people. He considered this one of his more commendable qualities.
But she had trusted him, Dorothy said. How could he have betrayed their privacy that way?
Walter sighed, offering his upturned hands at first but then settled them in his lap. You would have thought both of them had been arrested.
But how could he say he loved her, Dorothy asked, if he could have sex with someone else?
Had she really asked him that? Well, she had asked for it then. You’d have thought she was prepared for his answer.
While Walter to his unending regret had seized the moment as an invitation to unburden.
Did she think it was easy for him, he asked. A sex-life with teenaged kids in the house was difficult enough. Two sex-lives was work.
There was no remorse or even sorrow in this travesty of a confession. He was only being honest with her. Who was he hurting, Walter asked.
“But Walter, it’s disgusting. Can’t you see it’s disgusting?”
He nodded ruefully to this, but apologizing in the circumstances seemed pointless by then.
“I always knew you would feel that way, but I was sort of hoping you would understand it.”
“You mean that I would tolerate it?”
But he never did it to the exclusion of the important things. It was like stopping after work for a beer, he said. Like getting a haircut. It wasn’t like he was involved with them.
But he had always been so considerate with her, she said. She couldn’t understand it.
But she liked him that way, Walter reminded her. It wasn’t her fault that she was nice. “I always thought you were right about those things.”
For her sake then, he took care of those other things himself. He didn’t want to trouble her with it. It was like everything else he took care of, Walter explained — the jiggly light switches, the float valves in the toilet tanks? She could look around the house, he offered.
Dorothy was still struggling with these putative analogies when Walter returned from the basement with the waxed canvas duffel in which he kept his collection — postcards and playing cards, DVD’s, magazines, comic books and calendars, almanacs, peephole viewers, flip-books that he riffled to create the illusion of animation.
“You really like this stuff?” Dorothy asked.
But ‘like’ was not the word, she discovered. Those little panel books, with their scabrous parodies of popular comic-strip characters — Popeye the Sailor, Nancy and Sluggo, Maggie and Jiggs, Joe Palooka — those were collectors’ items, Walter told her.
Dorothy saw now that she had probably gone a little crazy during those first weeks.
Who was she, this prostitute he’d solicited? What did she look like? What had she said to him? Had he approached her, Dorothy asked, or had she approached him? Wasn’t he afraid? What if he brought something home to her? They had parasites those people. They hated people. Spreading diseases was fine with them.
Or did he hate her — maybe that was it, she said. Why else would he humiliate her that way? Didn’t he see how insulting it was? What had she done to provoke all that? Didn’t he realize that trusting him might already have cost her life?
Her heart would explode if she didn’t talk to someone, but her friends were not the kinds of friends she could confide her confusion to. She had phone-pals who probably would have been happy to listen, but the occasions whenever more than two of them got together almost always took on that breathless, chittering quality of a slumber party, and the women seemed so hungry for these reliefs that Dorothy didn’t see how she could impose on them.
Dorothy’s doctor had called by then with the reports from the lab. All negative thank God, she was fine he told her. But despite the leavening effect of this news, she felt curiously undercut by its dearth of consequence.
“Dorothy, I really don’t see why we have to make such a big thing out of this. It was wrong but I’m not a different person all of a sudden and if you could calm down for a second, I think you’ll see you’re really sort of over-reacting a little.
“I know you don’t want to hear this,” he added, as if talking about it could make it all right, Dorothy thought, like anything else they might be talking about.
But it was not all right, Dorothy said. He was her husband, or he was not her husband.
Walter offered to move out then, to give her some space as he put it, but wandering those formerly familiar rooms seemed only to heighten her confusion. Their familiarity itself seemed to mock and reproach her. But when she tried to explain her decision to the boys, it seemed as if they, too, had lives that were their real lives. They understood everything, you would have thought. They stood patiently, letting Dorothy embrace them, but they felt sorry for her. Her tender mind embarrassed them. Obviously, they too had humored her with assurances of regular habits and wholesome companions, just as they stood now humoring her admonitions to take care of the house. She had known all that for years, she saw now. In their sullen way they had probably imagined themselves protecting her. Even now they had that look.
Dorothy had taken a small apartment within walking distance of the mall where she was the day-manager of a jewelry franchise and two evenings a week she attended a re-entry class at the high school where she worked at planting herself and living in the present. There was also a mental aerobics class she was thinking of joining, a combination of reading and meditation, competitive discussion, board games, low-impact calisthenics and interpersonal problem solving. That, too, would be good for her, she thought. But at night she lay awake and in a few weeks convinced herself that everything had been her fault. Though not fat she was soft. She had short legs, stupid hair, dull skin, and though her butt was small its droop depressed her. If he’d cared for her at all, she thought, wouldn’t he have said something?
Naturally all her friends disappeared— she was a carrier now, a home-wrecker herself. Answering the door in a bustier and hose? Even the most loyal of them had fixed her in place. Suddenly it was as if her husband’s arrest was the only thing that had ever happened to her, and whenever the ladies spoke to her now it was always with the same tiresome, condescending concern. Not how was work, or do you feel like a coffee, or would you like to go shopping? No. “How are you, Dorothy? How do you feel today?” Their pity seemed only to magnify her losses. Cheerfulness would have felt reckless to those terrified women.
And now he wanted her back? But it didn’t make sense. Why, she asked at their weekly dinners. For what, if she wasn’t good enough? She wasn’t sexy, she wasn’t alluring. As in the costume romances she favored, her erotic imagination peaked with kisses, languid in a fugue of waves, a surge of brine, a falling away.
I always thought you liked my kisses, Walter said.
She did, she said. She had. But it wasn’t the same anymore. She would have felt childish and stupid kissing him now.
But I miss you, Dorothy. I loved making love with you, Walter said.
Yes, she thought bitterly, like home-cooking?
Yet Walter for his part seemed to think she was being petty. “Dorothy, why are you doing this?” he asked. It was as if he was embarrassed by her severity, as if he would never have expected such willfulness from her. “You’re my heart, Dorothy. I count on you. How can you be this mad at me?”
She loved him, too, that was the madness of it. Angry, hurt, diminished as she was, nevertheless her impulse was to help him. She felt unfaithful resenting him so much.
“I just don’t understand how you did those things, Walter. I don’t even know really if I want to.”
Had their whole marriage been a joke? The memories of her life seemed impossible to her now. Her devotion to him? Her self-respect?
“Dorothy, you’re going to drive yourself crazy this way. We have our lives in each other. How can you walk away from that?”
“Don’t you dare tell me what I can do,” she replied. “You don’t care about me. You never cared about me.”
“I know you’re upset, Dorothy, but that’s not fair.”
“Men are scum,” one of the women in her group said.
Yes, that made it easy, Dorothy thought. Reduce half the world to a petulant generalization.
A part-timer at the shop, Charlotte Buhler, had recommended Dorothy to this church-basement forum, which Dorothy appreciated in principle, but she felt pity for these slack and tentative, rather furtive women. They brooded and nagged but seemed lacking in the ordinary gumption to belong to themselves. Indeed all they truly seemed to yearn for was the ordinary affection one might offer a pet, for rather than be manless and somewhat vague as a result on the question of their necessity, they would suffer rapes, thefts, disfiguring assaults, public humiliation, financial abuse, and then, in pursuit of revenge, they would humiliate themselves further by having sex with people who didn’t care about them. They seemed shallow and unfeminine to Dorothy, perhaps vengeful and cunning, but broken and without character.
Nor were they supportive of her particularly. He was not a gambler or a drug addict, they observed. Presumably she was supposed to be grateful for this. Was he ever violent with her? Did he drink? Did he run up bills? Did he write bad checks? Was he into pain? Did he ever choke her, or force her to have sex with him, or take stuff from her parents, or lock her out? Did he ever destroy anything of hers, a doll or a keepsake or a pretty dress? Was he jealous of her? Did he distrust her? Did he follow her around? Did he ridicule her to the kids? Did he show up at her work and pick fights with her colleagues? Did he make her get high with him? Did he try to take over the money, or criticize her shopping? Did he force her to say that other men were attractive to her, or that she had fantasies of being with them?
You don’t get it, Dorothy said. That wasn’t what she was for him. He was a very sentimental man, this Walter Roman. Once they went to one of those lovers’ retreats — one of those spas with the heart-shaped beds and the in-room whirlpools? The women waited patiently then for the drowning scene, and when it didn’t come they seemed confused. “Who paid?” someone asked.
Dorothy made it her business to be in court for Walter’s appearance, and it gratified her that the presiding judge was a woman. She wanted him to be punished, and it puzzled her that the judge could be so skeptical about the arrest and so cynical about the charges. He was found guilty of course, but when he was sentenced to only eight hours of community service, Dorothy felt betrayed all over again, and at their periodic meetings, ostensibly to resolve matters of household administration, somehow the conversation always turned on the question of what she had done to warrant disgrace.
But he had never made comparisons, Walter protested. He had never asked her to do things that he knew she wouldn’t do and he never complained that she was unimaginative or incurious. He accepted her as she was, he said, narrow maybe but her sincerity touched him. There was always something of the wedding night about their lovemaking. She was always new for him that way. He had never wanted to spoil that.
“You adjusted,” she said.
Walter made an effort to maintain a neutral expression, but his head seemed to swivel away from her despite him.
“I was dull so you adjusted,” Dorothy said.
“It really wasn’t that bad for me, Dorothy. It was nice that you were like that. I respected it.”
He looked on the bright side, he was telling her. He used his imagination. She was old-school, this little Dorothy of his, a loving, home-made, one-man woman. She was limited but she could see the compensations for him in her limitations. He would never have to worry about her. She would never be unpredictable enough to constitute a problem.
No, of course it wasn’t always wonderful, Walter said. But neither was it ever disappointing for him. How could it be, he asked.
It was just that he couldn’t understand why she struggled to hold onto these petty resentments when with even less effort they might put the past behind them.
Open-mouthed, Dorothy sat back behind another untouched salad, the spit drying on her teeth as Walter renewed his commitment to their marriage. It could even be better now, he said, he should have been more open with her, he should have trusted her more, since at least where the sex was concerned he saw now that he might have been as old-school as she was.
“You mean I can be a whore too now,” she said, “if I put my mind to it.”
That fall Dorothy began taking evening classes toward an accounting degree at the community college and the boys, apparently growing up, were taking better care of things. They washed their own clothes and saw to the grounds, they kept the cars repaired, and to Dorothy’s relief they seemed also to have discovered themselves lacking that serendipitous combination of math skills, menace, prudence and gall that was essential for selling drugs at a profit. But money worries kept Dorothy in a constant state of crisis — she was still waking in the small hours of the morning with that sudden vacancy of water dropping from beneath a raft — and though her classes were supposed to be improving her earning power, her fatigue made it difficult for Dorothy to think about the future in terms of concrete objectives. The counseling center at the college had helped her with the budgeting, and when Walter petitioned for child-support, Dorothy finally dismissed her lawyer and retained another to renegotiate the settlement; but she had no savings, no retirement plan, nothing put aside for the kids’ educations, and since each month saw her carrying a higher balance on her cards, each day seemed to take on its own wretchedly precarious quality. She found herself counting and recounting her change at shop counters, triple-checking her bank statements, and repeatedly verifying the deductions itemized on the coupons attached to her salary checks; yet for all these pains she would neglect to enter the odd payment or ATM transaction in her check register and fail regularly to debit the account for minor service fees. Inadvertently she would hang the A-line jumpers that comprised most of her wardrobe on the same hangers as her tailored skirts and then spend days in circular and futile, broken-English quarrels with the dry-cleaning people. She would misplace her house-keys, neglect dental appointments, forget the names of regular customers. Often there was a feeling that information essential to her happiness was deliberately being withheld from her. But by whom? For what reason?
She might have been ready to see men again, though, and she wondered if those intermittent throes of anxiety and revulsion might really be a kind of anticipatory excitement. Yet the whole idea of getting to know someone seemed preposterous and impossible to her. Dorothy herself was not to be trusted. What else had her own life taught her except this? She was supposed to feel tougher but only felt exhausted, her best ambition to avoid risking challenge.
But it was supposed to be fun now, her coffee ladies assured her. These were her new companions, shop-women like herself employed at the mall, cynical and funny, rudely affectionate. What was at stake they asked, shaking her playfully by her upper arms. She knew more now, they reminded her, she could take it easy with herself.
But she felt pathetic, she complained. He’d made such a baboon of her. It was like those sieges of premenstrual malaise she used to suffer in adolescence when her own body had felt uninhabitable. That she had lived this long and what had it meant? She was like one of those dismal young girls who got pregnant and had babies as a kind of magical way to compel all the rest of that spun-sugar flummery to materialize, the hubby and home with the cheery fire, the holiday dinners with life-long friends, the tinsel-draped tree, the pie in the oven, Daddy proud and Mom content. Her soul had been mortgaged to those lace-paper doilies. It had all been so easy that way, like a child’s belief in Santa Claus, some delusional faith that everything effortlessly would be all right and that life like someone’s kindly Uncle Ned would make an exception for her.
What do you take me for, she had asked Walter over and over. Had she really said that? You would have thought she still had her dignity. She used to flatter herself that way, that there was honor in her simplicity.
But it was only a kind of incompetence really. She wasn’t principled, she was just lazy. Maturity was too difficult so she dismissed it as cynicism.
Well, look at her then. Look where her spurious naiveté had gotten her.
Although maybe in the last analysis that’s what hope was, Dorothy thought, that you could still be appalled by things.
It didn’t sound like hope though, did it? Or were hope and despair just different responses to the same abject helplessness?
She took the sputtering saucepan of canned soup from the stove and then poured another small glass of the white jug-wine she had taken to drinking recently to help her sleep.
The question was how did you say yes to things without asking to have your brains knocked out? She envied those women who seemed able with such apparent ease to fill that space between before and after, who seemed to take themselves so casually, who had that happy faculty for attributing a uniform care to whatever they might be doing. They were stylish women. You couldn’t hide those powers. Their wisdom showed in the angle of their heads, in their languor, and in the infinite gradations of expression they could draw from the corners of their mouths. She envied that capacity for occupation they seemed to have, diverting themselves with small pleasures of the senses. For herself the yard-sale excursions they invited her to join seemed always to take an extraordinary effort, but for them there seemed immense satisfaction simply turning things in their hands. They bought flowers for themselves. They traveled together. They bought season subscriptions to local theaters. Doubtless, whenever that old itch came upon them, they would simply go out and get someone to scratch it for them. “Wrapped in plastic,” they laughed. “Always get it wrapped in plastic.”
Had they always been that way, she wondered, or was it simply an age they had reached? They felt like outlaws to her, like the bad-girls she had feared and condemned in high school, casually defiant, bending their resentments to resemble pride. Indifference like that had always seemed disreputable to Dorothy, a sort of dirtiness, but now she wondered if a bit of defiance might be just what she was missing.
Except that was a lie, too. She knew what she was missing.
But more vivid in its absence was the simple, incidental, day-to-day touching, those dozens of small casual pecks and pressings that seemed now to have anchored her in place and stitched the pieces of her life together. She glanced then at the soup and found she had no appetite for it. In the bathroom she undressed quickly and waited for the shower to run warm.
The Cambodian woman who did her nails had recently told Dorothy a happily-ever-after story about one of her clients, a widow who ended up marrying her former brother-in-law, and from time to time Dorothy would hear similar stories from her coffee ladies, about women recycling old beaus recovered like rummage-sale items at class reunions, but when Dorothy assessed her own chances for one of these fairy-tale redemptions, her best prospects seemed either the state lottery or perhaps some pensioned halfwit with a passion for stretch marks.
The water was hot and after dialing the taps to adjust the temperature, she stepped into the tub. This was better. The percussive warmth quickly penetrated her muscles, lifting the tension from her shoulders and carrying it down the backs of her legs. She turned and leaned forward, supporting herself with the towel bar, to let the water massage her lower back.
Relaxed now, she began to lather her body, but almost immediately her own hands embarrassed her so that she had to start over, soaping herself again but this time with a coarse washcloth. Probably it was the wine, Dorothy thought. Lately it had become a little too easy to drink. But a moment later, lathering her hair, she had to wonder if she might be truly drunk. The water tracing the rounds of her body felt strangely thick, like a warm syrup, and beneath the thrum of the shower she seemed to hear a rising din in her own body, a pulling heaviness at first like a weight of fatigue but almost immediately more insistent, like something warm and boneless turning over in sleep, yawning and then gathering itself. Her spine seemed to shrink. She felt knotted, but then the knottedness seemed to melt in her, opening like a peeling open of wings. For a minute or more she couldn’t trust herself to move.
Though she couldn’t deny the relief she felt. Apparently she was a lot like Walter, Dorothy thought. She didn’t want to bother anyone.
Bill Teitelbaum studies writing at the Kitchen Table College of Continuing Education in Lincolnwood, Illinois. His work has appeared in journals such as 2 Bridges Review, Bayou, The Iconoclast, Jewish Fiction and Rhino, and in anthologies such as Western Michigan University’s Art of the One-Act. His short story, “Busted,” is part of a collection about the newly single called Are You Seeing Anyone?